“What if nuclear bombs could reproduce? Get your hands on one today, and in a week’s time you’ve got a few dozen.”
That’s the lead sentence of a feature article I just wrote for Inside Stanford Medicine. The answer is, bombs can’t reproduce. But something just as potentially deadly – and a whole lot easier to come by – can, and does.
What I learned in the course of writing the feature, titled “How contagious pathogens could lead to nuke-level casualties” (I encourage you to take a whack at it), was bracing. Stanford surgeon Milana Trounce, MD, who specializes in emergency medicine, has been teaching a course that pulls together students, faculty and outside experts from government, industry and academia. Her goal is to raise awareness and inspire collaborations on the thorny multidisciplinary problems posed by the very real prospect that somebody, somewhere, could very easily be producing enough killer germs to wipe out huge numbers of people – numbers every bit as large as those we’ve come to fear in the event of a nuclear attack.
Among those I quote in the article are infectious-disease expert David Relman, MD, and biologist/applied physicist Steven Block, PhD, both of whom have sat in on enough closed-door meetings to know that bioterrorism is something we need to take seriously.
Not only do nukes not reproduce. They don’t leap from stranger to stranger, or lurk motionless in midair or on fingertips. Nor can they be fished from soil and streams or cheaply conjured up in a clandestine lab in someone’s basement or backyard. One teaspoon of the toxin produced by the naturally occurring bacterial pathogen Clostridium botulinum is enough to kill several hundreds of thousands of people. That’s particularly scary when you consider that this toxin – better known by the nickname “Botox” - is already produced commercially for sale to physicians who inject it into their patients’ eyebrows.
As retired Rear Adm. Ken Bernard, MD, a former special assistant on biosecurity matters to Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and a guest speaker for Trounce’s Stanford course, put it: “Who can be sure there’s no off-site, illegal production? Suppose a stranger were to say, ‘I want 5 grams — here’s $500,000’?
That’s five grams, as in one teaspoon. As I just mentioned, we’re talking hundreds of thousands of people killed, if this spoonful were to, say, find its way into just the right point in the milk supply chain (the point where loads of milk from numerous scattered farms get stored in huge holding tanks before being parsed out to myriad delivery trucks). That’s pretty stiff competition for a hydrogen bomb. For striking terror into our hearts, the only thing bioweapons lack is branding – nothing tops that mushroom-cloud logo.
Previously: Stanford bioterrorism experts comments on new review of anthrax case and Show explores scientific questions surrounding 2001 anthrax attacks
Photo of Milana Trounce by Norbert von der Groeben